Stretching from the Detroit riverfront to downtown Pontiac, Woodward Avenue is the heart of the Motor City. It divides east and west, and serves as one of Detroit’s busiest commuter and shopping corridors. But for one weekend each year, the wide stretch of tarmac becomes Motown’s Memory Lane.
Things were different back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, before "white flight" sent millions moving out to the suburbs. The eight-lane boulevard was dotted with drive-ins rather than strip malls, and late at night, long after their parents had gone to bed, the youth of Detroit would begin a ritual rite of passage.
Forget Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, or L.A.’s Sunset Strip, "Woodward was without any doubt the premiere cruising street for anyone who had an interesting car to show off," recalls Jim Wangers, the marketing genius behind the legendary Pontiac GTO, perhaps the most popular car to cruise Woodward Avenue. Wangers will be one of an estimated million or more nostalgia-driven motorists who will turn out to cruise Woodward next weekend, or simply sit on the sidewalk and watch the memories drive by.
Euro and Aussie cruisers
The annual Woodward Dream Cruise has become one of the nation’s most popular automotive events, drawing visitors from as far away as Europe and Australia. Doris Brookings and her husband are likely to be back, as they are most years. They met on Woodward, where she learned to drive behind the wheel of a ’57 Chevy. So they drive 13 hours from their home in Chatfield, Minn., to celebrate their summer with another cruise down Woodward.
What’s the appeal? Cruising harkens back to an age of innocence, before drugs and the Vietnam War divided America. Woodward Avenue was a magnet, much like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury would become in the late ‘60s "Summer of Love." It made the pages of Esquire magazine and the cover of Life. It was a subject of a special report on CBS News. And it inspired a generation of street racers from New York to Los Angeles.
"If you had five bucks you were rich. That was enough to buy a tank of gas and some hamburgers," recalls Bill Stedman, who used to cruise the strip in its heydays. Cheryl Rose would tell her parents she was going to the library to study, and then make a beeline for Woodward. But her big problem wasn’t getting her grades up, but keeping her boyfriends in order. "You’d be riding with one, and then have to duck down if you saw another."
In the years before Japanese and European imports became the vehicles of choice for American youth, Detroit’s muscle cars ruled the highways. The Big Three automakers were locked in battle, always looking for ways to squeeze just a little more power out of their big block V-8s. It was common for senior automotive executives to give their kids the keys to the latest prototypes, just to say how fast they would run down Woodward. Other senior execs, like Wangers, would cruise the strip on their own, lighting up the tires when the light went green — and getting to know the local cops a little better than they’d have liked.
Events like the Dream Cruise are touching a note of nostalgia for anyone old enough to remember the days when hot rods and muscle cars ruled the road. "People generally gravitate towards the cars they owned — or wanted but couldn’t own — when they were young," suggests Bruce Meyer, one of the country’s top collectors. He rolled out some of his own rods for the "Route 66 Rendezvous," which snakes its way through downtown San Bernardino, Calif., in mid-September. The Rendezvous is one of the big three road events for hot road and muscle aficionados, along with the Dream Cruise and Reno’s "Hot August Nights." But scores of similar events are popping up all over America.
In the process, hot rods and muscle cars are gaining newfound respectability, even among serious collectors and traders. After long ignoring the genre, the organizers of the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance created a hot rod category several years ago, and they’ve become a fixture at Detroit’s own Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance.
If last year is any indication, there’ll be at least 50,000 hot rods and muscle cars cruising Woodward during the Dream Cruise, along with countless more conventional vehicles just along for the ride. You’ll see a lot of aging faces among the crowd, Boomers reliving their youth. But the cruising craze hasn’t been lost on the young.
Brad Levelle, a self-styled "’50s kind of guy," wasn’t even a gleam in his Daddy’s eye when the ’56 Chevy Bel Air he takes to the Woodward Dream Cruise rolled off the assembly line. But Levelle loves tinkering under the hood and laments that the cars he has grown up with look too much alike and are too complicated to work on.
Muscle cars and hot rods represent a unique era in American automotive design, and events like the Dream Cruise and the Route 66 Rendezvous will help keep the memories — and interest — alive.
If you can’t make it to Motown next week, TheCarConnection.com is the place to be for all the sites and sounds of the annual Woodward Dream Cruise. We’ll have daily updates, classic car reviews, plenty of pictures and more. You’ll find it only on the Web’s Automotive Authority…TheCarConnection.com.